Screenwriters Picket as Strike Begins

David Carr and Michael Cieply report:

Tina Fey, a writer and cast-member of "30 Rock," was among the Writers Guild of America members on strike Monday in New York. Librado Romero/The New York Times

Hollywood writers moved to the picket lines this morning, as last-minute negotiations between the writers' unions and producers failed to avert a strike over payments from producers for so-called new media, among other issues.

About 75 members of Writers Guild East set up a picket at Rockefeller Center, just above the fabled ice rink. Picketers chanted: "No money? No downloads. No downloads? No peace."

Many of the writers said that they expected to be out of work for a while. The tourists and office workers who walked by rarely stopped at the curious sight of writers holding signs that read, "On Strike." For a time, the pickets chants were drowned out by the roar of the crowd that was assembled for the "Today" show across 49th Street.

All of the trappings of a union protest were there – signs, chanting workers, an inflatable rat, and a discarded bag of wrappers and cups from Dunkin Donuts. The rat was borrowed from Local 79, an AFL-CIO laborers' union, and commuted in from Queens.

But instead of hard hats and work boots, the people on the pickets had arty glasses and fancy scarves.

"A lot of the public probably feels like we are brats," said Sarah Durken, a writer for children's programs. "We are not hospital workers and firefighters, we know that – the world is going to keep turning. But I think everyone understands that the issue of corporate greed versus the needs of workers and their families."

More than 12,000 movie and television writers represented by the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East walked out today, after three months of acrimonious negotiations proved fruitless. It is the first industrywide strike by writers since 1988; that strike lasted five months and cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.

The sides have been at odds over, among other things, writers' demands for a large increase in pay for movies and television shows released on DVD, and for a bigger share of the revenue from such work delivered over the Internet.

A federal mediator, who joined the talks last week, asked the sides to continue talking in a Sunday session, but neither a deal nor an agreement to keep talking was reached.

Writers in Los Angeles have also begun picketing more than a dozen studios and production sites in four-hour shifts, one beginning at 9 a.m. Pacific time, the other at 1 p.m.

Back in Manhattan, Charlotte, a small but surprisingly loud dog, barked in unison with the picketers' chants.

"She's mad because they didn't have a shirt in her size," said J. R. Havlan, a writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." "She's really angry that there has not been an agreement, but she is having a little trouble understanding the issues."

She's not the only one. No one, including the people at the bargaining table, is precisely sure what is being argued about, because many of the digital forms of entertainment at issue are in their nascent state.

"I can barely switch on a computer, but we all know what is at state here, said Amy Sherman-Palladino, a writer who is working on a "Jezebel James," her new Fox series with Parker Posey, and was the co-creator of "Gilmore Girls." "We are taking a stand for the next 20 years, and what we do now is going to define the new business model going forward."

Just then, the chant switched to "No money, no funny," a reminder that many of the people on the picket line on New York make their living writing for the various talk/comedy shows.

Ms. Sherman-Palladino continued, "I was telling my husband" – Daniel Pallidino, her writing partner on the new Fox show and on "Gilmore Girls," and a fellow picketer – "that we need some new and better chants, but he reminded me: ‘No writing. None.' "

Jonathan Bines, a writer for the "The Jimmy Kimmel Show," felt that the producer's unwillingness to compensate for digital use of their work defied logic.

"I'm surprised we are out here." Mr. Bines said. "I thought the producers would come in with some ridiculously low-ball offer on a percentage of new media and that we'd take it and it would be over. But they have offered us nothing."

On Sunday, the union dropped a demand for increased compensation for DVD sales, with the expectation that it would create some movement around the digital issue, but no counteroffer was forthcoming, and the strike commenced at 12:01 a.m. today.

At either end of the picket line in Manhattan, newly underemployed writers handed out leaflets that said: "We are the Writer's Guild. We write your favorite sitcoms, dramas, late night shows, soap operas, moves and more. We work hard to bring you our best in entertainment."

As with anyone who is trying to handout leaflets to New Yorkers in full stride, it was very slow going. Tourists look down from a passing Gray Line tour bus wondering what all the fuss was about.

"Don't worry, we won't hurt you," said Andrew Smith, who writes for "The View." "It's hard for the public to understand. Writers going on strike sounds like shepherds staging a walkout or something. The general public has no understanding of the issues that we are facing, but we are here because the producers will take as much as the can unless writers stand up for themselves."